Challenges of Future Cities – A Response

Continuing our series of student guest posts, today we have a student response to our blog post The Challenge of Future Cities.

This article is a response to the October 22nd MCEDC blog post discussion entitled “The Challenge of Future Cities,” from the perspective of cities affected by natural or human-imposed disasters.The four key ideas from the earlier posting provide thoughtful discussion points for how best to relocate or rebuild after a disaster.

1) Research is needed to determine what people and cities need, but is not in itself the end goal.

It is true that there will always be more to learn about the social, economic, political, and environmental consequences of a disaster:

  • Engineers need to study the extent of damage in order to determine mitigation strategies.
  • Sociologists need to assess the social impacts of a disaster in order to map changes in community structure.
  • Economists need to quantify business losses in order to propose more robust economic models.

Research can help to suggest appropriate paths forward, such as which neighborhoods should be relocated, and which should receive funds for reconstruction and retrofits. Journal articles alone, however, cannot provide a foundation on which to rebuild a city. Studies conducted before and after disasters occur should serve as the just first steps for reconstruction.

2) Effective solutions will come from collaboration between citizens and governments.

Moving forward after a disaster, the decisions to either rebuild or relocate buildings and neighborhoods must come from open discussion between citizens, governments, engineers and urban planners. A frequent challenge during reconstruction is how to design buildings that will perform better during the next hazard event, but that will not stand out as incongruous with traditional buildings.  This is one place where research may identify mitigation strategies that allow the restoration of communities in ways that both offer disaster mitigation and maintain the culture and history integral to a region. From such surveys, governments and citizens can work together in the physical implementation of projects that satisfy community wishes, as well as government standards.

3) It is possible for cities to learn from the experiences of other communities around the world.

Rebuilding a city requires recognition of the unique geographical, environmental and cultural aspects of each country. The threat of a tsunami is non-existent in the tornado-prone states of the U.S. In Turkey, meanwhile, heavy snowstorms are of much less concern than are earthquakes. In addition, the availability of building materials or the knowledge of the local workforce may vary from country to country, or even from city to city. Consequently, a successful post-disaster strategy for one region may prove inappropriate for another. Where cities can learn from the experiences of others is in the frameworks through which they approach recovery. Regardless of the use of bamboo, concrete or adobe, cross-country comparisons of institutional methodologies can suggest new plans for improving long-term community resilience.

4) Cities should adapt to the needs of their citizens, not vice versa.

Just as building materials may differ across regions, benchmarks for recovery and reconstruction should reflect the distinct economic, cultural and political structure of each city. When planning the relocation or redevelopment of a neighborhood, it is important to understand that changes to an urban area will not appear overnight. As post-earthquake reconstruction of Haiti continues, future development plans must be representative of the true needs of the country’s citizens. This requires discussion and collaboration between governments, communities, engineers and policymakers. After a disaster, the services and infrastructure a city needs for development may change, depending on the desired activities for incremental recovery and rebuilding.

In the days, months, and years following a disaster, the path forward for a city depends not only on how it overcomes challenges, but on how it defines its future. Sustainable or suffering. Vibrant or violent. Unified or unorganized. Resilient or run-down. The realization of a post-disaster vision for a city requires understanding of the distinct hazard characteristics of a region, recognition of the unique needs of a society, study of the results of other communities’ projects, and establishment of clear communication between all persons affected by a disaster.


Links for further reading:

[1] Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (2011). Knowledge Note: Earthquake Reconstruction. The World Bank, Washington D.C.

[2] UNISDR (2013). Making Cities Resilient: “My City is Getting Ready.”

[3] El-Masri, Souheil and Graham Tipple (2002). Natural Disasters, Mitigation and Sustainability: The Case for Developing Countries. International Planning Studies, 7(2), 157-175.



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